One of the items on Congress’ long to-do list through the end of the year is Senator Joe Manchin’s proposal to speed up the federal government’s approval process, which certifies that energy projects do not harm the environment.
But the bill, which was a condition of the centrist West Virginia Democrat’s support for his party’s broader climate, health and tax measure earlier this year, may still not have the support it needs to pass, since progressive Democrats are concerned about the impact on environmental protection.
Not passing a bill this year would be a disappointment to Manchin and its oil, gas and coal allies, who have been pushing for years to relax federal permitting requirements. Some renewable energy advocates also say federal permitting needs to be reformed to allow wind and solar technology to reach their highest potential.
But it would be welcome news for environmentalists, who say the law would weaken a fundamental environmental law that protects communities from pollution while providing little new renewable energy capacity.
Congress is expected to convene for much of December before adjourning for a new session in January and a split government if Republicans narrowly take over the House of Representatives.
“It’s a pretty tight calendar and they’re busy,” said Brett Hartl, the director of government affairs for the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity, which opposes the Manchin Act, speaking of the Lame Duck session of Congress . “So you’re spending a lot of time on a law that’s very divisive?”
Environmental Justice Concerns
Environmental groups, including those in the environmental justice movement, which aims to protect marginalized communities from pollution, have opposed the law from the start.
The measure would put a time limit on environmental assessments and limit local authorities’ powers to challenge public authority decisions in court.
“Senator Manchin’s legislation heralds the enduring silence of environmental rights communities in the permitting process, while at the same time negating the right to due process in court if they deem it necessary to protect their communities from harm,” 70 environmental rights organizations said in a Nov. 15 letter to President Joe Biden.
The letter was distributed Monday by US Rep. Raul Grijalva, a progressive Arizona Democrat who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee and has been vocal in opposing the Manchin Bill.
Kaine says the Manchin bill’s Mountain Valley Pipeline provision “could open the door to serious abuse and even corruption.”
Manchin’s bill targets National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requirements, requiring environmental assessments of major projects to be completed within two years and all others within one year.
Those deadlines don’t really weaken the law’s requirements, but an artificial schedule with no additional resources to complete reviews could result in agencies cutting corners, said Aaron Weiss, associate director of conservation group Centers for Western Priorities.
“And when agencies back down on NEPA reviews, they get caught in court for years,” Weiss said. “The irony of at least the last Manchin proposal we saw is that it didn’t look like it would actually do much to streamline NEPA reviews and, if anything, it could backfire.”
A major sticking point in Manchin’s bill is the provision permitting the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a natural gas pipeline in Virginia and West Virginia.
US Senator Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, said earlier this year that he opposed the bill because of this section. The pipeline should be subject to standard environmental assessments, he said.
The permit bill was part of a deal Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer struck with Manchin to secure his support for Democrats’ big climate, health and tax bill, which would seek $370 billion in clean energy spending provided.
Schumer said at the time that he didn’t like the idea of weakening environmental laws, but passing the larger bill was a necessary concession to Manchin. He also said reforms could speed up clean energy projects.
“I didn’t like the permit reform, but it was something Senator Manchin wanted,” he said in a news conference immediately after the Senate passed the inflation-mitigating bill in August. “We modified it a bit and it actually does some very good things for the environment. It will make it easier to permit clean energy.”
But that argument hasn’t fully caught on, as environmentalists oppose swapping long-standing federal safeguards to allow changes that would help both clean energy and fossil fuel production.
“It’s pretty naïve to think that if we exempt NEPA, renewable energy would be the bigger winner,” said Hartl of the Biodiversity Center.
“I think the transmission of (renewable) energy is important,” said Lisa Frank, executive director of the Washington office of environmental group Environment America. “But we don’t see it as that defining moment that we have to do something by December or a clean energy future will be destroyed.”
prospects for this year
There are indications that Manchin and Schumer are continuing to work to placate opponents of the bill and pass it this year, likely as an annex to a government funding bill or the annual defense permit.
The White House supports. Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said during the daily White House briefing on November 10 that the defense bill should include Manchin’s proposed authorization.
But the permit bill remains without critical support in Washington.
“As you saw last time we tried, there weren’t enough Republican votes,” Schumer told reporters Tuesday. “I’m working with Sen. Manchin to see what we can do.”
Despite Schumer’s blessing, the rank and file Democrats, particularly on the side of the House of Representatives, have largely not supported him.
Progressives have well-documented concerns about the bill. Neither progressives nor republicans have given any indication that they are changing their positions. Grijalva reiterated his resistance in the Monday letter.
In theory, Republicans should endorse a proposal to streamline federal approvals. For years, some Republicans have railed against the bureaucracy that is slowing down infrastructure construction and making it more expensive.
A clearer Republican victory in the midterm elections this year may have brought Democrats and environmental groups back to the negotiating table to try and reach an agreement — particularly on clean energy transfers — before the less environmentally conscious GOP takes over in January, Hartl said.
But with a narrow single-digit majority in the House of Representatives, Republican leader and presumptive next House Speaker Kevin McCarthy may not be able to garner votes for a permit bill, and progressives seem more willing to take their chances.
“The odds of Republican dysfunction and inoperability are extremely high in the next Congress,” Hartl said.
Still, Manchin and Schumer have caused surprises before. Most recently this summer, Manchin insisted he was still working on a climate bill that he could support, even as his colleagues in Congress and many other observers blamed his ambivalence for hurting the chances of legislation to tackle climate change.
He and Schumer emerged with a deal for a big bill within weeks.
A person close to Manchin said in late November that the senator “continues to look at ways to get it passed by the end of the year.”
But given the busy agenda — funding the government, approving annual military spending, maybe raising the debt ceiling and passing a bill clarifying how the electoral college operates — Democrats may prefer to stick to points they agree on, Hartl said .
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